EDEN PRAIRIE — The injury, torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in Adrian Peterson’s left knee, couldn’t have been much more devastating for an NFL running back.
This is a game where split-seconds, whether an extra burst of acceleration or a stop-on-a-dime cut, can mean the difference between reaching the end zone and being tackled at the line of scrimmage. Reconstructive surgery can quickly turn dominant players into ordinary ones in a league with don’t-blink-short careers.
Peterson has always been one of a kind, though. On one hand, returning for Minnesota’s season opener roughly 8 1/2 months after his operation and rushing for 1,600 yards through 13 games is an almost-unfathomable accomplishment. On the flip side, this year for him has simply fallen in line with a long list of feats for this once-in-a-generation package of power, determination and speed.
“You can’t be surprised anymore,” Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt said. “I’ve seen him do everything. You’ve just come to expect that kind of stuff out of him now.”
There are a few other tricks Peterson just might be able to pull off season, too:
- Become the seventh 2,000-yard rusher in history and carry the Vikings to the playoffs, without a competent passing attack in a league dominated by strong-armed, super-accurate quarterbacks.
- Win the Comeback Player of the Year award in a season when Peyton Manning’s successful return from a neck problem that required a year off has already put Denver in the playoffs and thrust the 36-year-old quarterback to the forefront of the Most Valuable Player discussion.
With typical unflinching confidence, Peterson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press he’s expecting to win the comeback award.
“It was something that flashed across my mind, me knowing what I was going to be able to do, being where I’m at now,” Peterson said. “I kind of have that in the bag, especially how I’ve been telling people I’m going to come back stronger and better than ever. So I’ve pretty much zip-locked that in a bag and sealed it. It’ll be cool to win it.”
Manning has thrown for 30 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions, ranking in the top 10 in almost every passing category in the NFL. After four procedures to fix a nerve problem in his neck that weakened his throwing arm and switching cities, teammates, coaches and playbooks, Manning has transformed the Broncos into a real-deal Super Bowl contender.
Peterson was hurt on Christmas Eve, so he missed only one game last season, which will likely count at least a few votes against him. Quarterbacks have their hands on the ball every play, too, helping Manning’s cause. Plus, Manning’s injury had the potential to be just as debilitating to his job as Peterson’s.
Baltimore running back Ray Rice, for his part, did all he could to consider Peterson before Manning’s case won him over.
“In my history of playing football, I’ve never seen a guy come back that fast off of an ACL. I know he’s a beast, but ... when you hear about neck injuries, you usually hear about someone being done for their career,” Rice said. “No matter what it was, the guy had surgery, lost all his strength in his arm, had to gain it back.”
Manning insisted he’s too focused on his own team and his opponents to have paid much attention to Peterson in the other conference.
“But what a heck of a player, what a heck of an athlete,” he said.
Peterson, too, said he’s been impressed with Manning’s exploits when he’s had the rare chance to watch at home on television, though not enough to concede the award, of course. That’s how he got to this point, after all. Relying on his top-flight medical treatment, his lifelong Christian faith and his freakishly athletic genes, Peterson refused to accept that he couldn’t come back from the injury even better than before. That, he’s done. With 161 more yards rushing, he’ll be at his career high.
“The injury that I had, the position that I play and what I’ve done, it speaks for itself,” Peterson said. “Not to take anything away from Peyton Manning, but if you’re really looking at it, it speaks for itself.”
Maybe if he zooms past that 2,000-yard mark with a strong final three games he’ll even wind up with the MVP award.
Of the six previous 2,000-yard rushers, three of them either won or shared MVP honors that year: O.J. Simpson in 1973, Barry Sanders in 1997 and Terrell Davis in 1998. Two of them, coincidentally, watched Manning take the MVP award instead: Jamal Lewis in 2003 and Chris Johnson in 2009. Eric Dickerson has the all-time single-season record of 2,105 yards rushing in 1984. Dan Marino was the MVP that year.
“The MVP, man, that’s something that I’ve always wanted to grab. I work hard. I want to be the best player to play this game, so with that, MVP awards come,” Peterson said. “But I know this league and how it is, man. They’re kind of biased to the quarterback, which is unfortunate. They make it hard for other players to win it, but I will.”
Johnson said he’s proud of the way Peterson has performed this season, even if one of his peers is able to pass his mark of 2,006 yards.
“The way he’s been running, the way he’s been playing, he has a good chance of him doing that. It’s still a hard thing to do,” Johnson said.
The Vikings need him more than ever, with quarterback Christian Ponder still trying to find his groove as a starter, so Peterson will probably get enough attempts to have a chance at the milestone as long as the Vikings don’t fall too far behind in any of their games. They finish the season at St. Louis, at Houston and at home against Green Bay, hoping to win out and for a chance at the playoffs.
Qualifying for the postseason is always a stretch a year after a 3-13 record, but maybe more so with a passing attack that has netted 150 yards or fewer in six of 13 games this season. But after a career-most 31 carries in last week’s win over Chicago, Peterson isn’t wearing down now.
He has enough motivation and momentum, whether he’s successful in these quests or not, to accomplish more yet that NFL convention insists he’s not supposed to.
“They don’t call me ‘All Day’ for no reason,” he said. “I don’t plan on hitting no walls.”